Dr Frazier Rides to the Edge of the Earth

July 14, 2009
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Earth’s edge, Anchor Point, Alaska, is on many adventurist motorcycle travelers’ check list, but one not easily found or tagged.

When adventure motorcyclists share travel tale touch points, most agree the end of Route 3 south of Ushuaia, Argentina, on the continent of South America, was as far south as they could drive their motorcycle. The same with Cape Agulhaus, in the country of the Republic of South Africa on the continent of Africa. On the European continent the furthest north touch point is the North Cape of Norway. For the North American continent the furthest north point is Prudhoe Bay (also known as Deadhorse) in Alaska.

Author stands on the former location of the sign designating North Americas most westerly highway point.
Dr. Frazier stands on the former location of the sign designating North America’s most westerly highway point.

The motorcyclist cannot physically reach the edge of these continents on their motorcycles at these locations due to geographical inhibitors. For instance, the 1,000 foot-high cliffs at the North Cape prevent the adventurer from actually reaching the water on their motorcycle. Here they are required to park in a Visitor Center parking lot and walk several hundred yards to a fenced area where they can look down to the water below.

At Cape Agulhaus a large rock sea wall prevents the motorcyclist from touching the water. A small parking area at a sign which says the location is the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic oceans is as far as they can take their motorcycle. Climbing over the rocks lets them put a boot in the water at the earth’s edge, but not a motorcycle front tire.
Access to the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay is limited due to security reasons. The landed edge of the earth here is dotted with oil pumping facilities to store and pump the crude oil sucked out of the earth and pushed southward down the 800-mile-long Alaska Pipeline to Valdez. If the motorcyclist wants to step off the earth’s edge and into the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay they must park their motorcycles, pay $40 and ride in a minivan through the secured pumping facility for two-three miles to the water. Once there they can dip a boot or swim if they have the constitution to become a member of the Polar Bear Club.

At the end of the road of South America there is a parking lot and sign, but again the motorcyclist must park and walk several hundred yards to reach the water and earth’s edge.

Not so for North America’s most westerly highway point, Anchor Point, Alaska. Here the motorcyclist, if they are good at riding through some soft sand, can reach the water line, and if they pick their point right can get their wheels submerged in the salt water of Cook Inlet, the earth’s edge.

Reaching Anchor Point can be a warm and easy day ride from Anchorage. However, picking the wrong day, meeting a bear or moose along the way, or pushing their luck for gas can make for an interesting adventure.

I was unlucky on three of those counts in June of 2009, lucky on one and very lucky on one unknown.

The Seward Highway gives a view across Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet of the Chugach National Forest.
The Seward Highway gives a view across Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet of the Chugach National Forest.

My adventure motorcycle was a Kawasaki KLX250 S, ideally suited for an Alaska adventure. The KLX250S would cruise, fully loaded, at 65-75 mph, well above posted maximum speed limits. It loved gravel and hard pan or washboard roads, many of which can be found in Alaska. However, the road from Anchorage to Anchor Point was all paved, and sedate speed limits posted.

The morning of my Anchor Point day was overcast and wet in Anchorage, so I waited for the sun to melt the cold and wet while I completed errands around Anchorage: laundry, email at a hotel business center, and purchased spare inner tubes at the newly located and expanded Alaska Leather shop. Next I spent an hour as the day warmed while listening to travel tales and tips from employees and customers at The Motorcycle Shop, the Kawasaki/BMW/Ducati/KTM/Triumph dealer where most motorcycle adventure travelers stop to trade travel tales and see who else is on the road. I burned off about 10 miles of gas roaming around Anchorage before starting on the Seward Highway.

At Girdwood I passed a gas station, but being only 37 miles out of Anchorage I thought I would make the next gas stop at the Tern Lake Junction where the Seward Highway vectors south and the Sterling Highway goes west. That was my second mistake for the day, the first being not topping off the two gallon gas tank when leaving Anchorage even though I had consumed only 1/5th of a gallon of gas.

There was a bear in those bushes that ran past me 10 feet away.
A bear in those bushes ran past me just 10 feet away.

The Stewart Highway to the Tern Lake Junction was one of the more scenic roads out of Anchorage. Designated a National Forest Scenic Byway, it runs parallel to the Alaska Railroad which starts in Seward. The road is sometimes less than 100 feet from the salt water of the Cook Inlet. On a clear day the white, snow-capped mountains of the Chugach National Forest across the Turnagain Arm are often captured by photographers for images in books and calendars.

The coffee I drank at lunch two hours earlier wanted out of my body as I approached a roadside pullover. After stopping the motorcycle and walking to the edge of the bush I was anticipating the relief as I rapidly worked on zippers and riding shorts. Behind me a horn honked as a car went by. I thought they were just letting me know they saw what I was doing but when I turned to look at the car I saw the driver had honked at a large black bear that had run across the road in front of the car and was running in my direction.

This was one of those awkward decision times when one is faced with shutting off the flow of relief valve versus soldiering on when under fire. I opted to keep the valve open and my luck was the bear ran past me ten feet away and into the bush. I can’t say the bear scared the water out of me but can say it speeded up the flow. It was also a fast zip-up, dash to the motorcycle, push button start, then pull out the camera and take a photo of the bush where the bear disappeared. My interest in following it was zero, not needing another picture of an Alaska bear for my archives.

Tern Lake at Tern Lake Junction 90 miles from Anchorage  where there was no gas.
Tern Lake at Tern Lake Junction 90 miles from Anchorage, where there was no gas.

The high speed along the Stewart Highway consumed gas faster than I had calculated and I switched the fuel tap to the reserve position and dropped to 35 mph 12 miles from the anticipated gas station at the Tern Lake Junction. When I reached the junction I had gone 100 miles on the tank and there was no gas station, bad luck or bad planning. My decision was to go further south on the Stewart Highway and try to reach Moose Pass six miles further where there was a lodge. The other decision was to drive west on the Sterling Highway and hopefully reach the Sunrise Inn, eight miles away. Six miles versus eight miles on reserve made my decision for me and I opted for Moose Pass, where I thought I could at least purchase some gas from a car or truck driver using six feet of plastic hose I carry to siphon it out of their gas tank.

Two miles into the Moose Pass decision the gas tank ran dry. I tried the trick of laying the motorcycle on its side to see if there was any gas in the right side of the tank that would flow over to the left side where the fuel tap was located. The KLX250S weighs nearly 300 pounds empty, so I first unloaded the entire luggage, and then flopped it on the left side.

While I was performing this roadside operation a passing pick-up truck stopped. The driver asked if I was OK, and I explained I was out of gas, trying to get some from one side of the tank to the other. He laughed, said he knew my problem well, having owned a Harley-Davidson Sportster with a gas tank so small that would “run out of gas going across town.” He was in a company-owned truck with a locked gas tank so we could not siphon any gas out, but he said if I could push the motorcycle or walk another mile there was a place that sold used trucks and cars where I might be able to buy enough gas to get to the next gas station.

I repacked the motorcycle, got seated and pushed the starter button while saying a quick prayer. The engine sputtered, and then started. I smoothly sped up and shifted into 5th gear, trying to make the next mile at low rpms in high gear. Halfway there the carburetor ran dry again. I swore, opened the gas tank and blew into it hoping to force some more gas into the dry float bowl. After several sputters I quit using the starter, afraid to run the battery down and not be able to start when I did find gas.

Decision time had come again: park, lock and leave my gear on the motorcycle unattended and walk or push the loaded beast. I decided to push. My good joss was the road was angled very slightly down hill. After ten minutes and several rest stops I came to the driveway of the used car and truck dealer. I parked and walked to where I could hear the clinking of tools behind the four trucks “For Sale.”

There I found a man working under the hood of an early 1980’s Ford car. When I said “Hello,” he looked up at me and must have thought “What’s this?” There I stood in a Hi-Viz, screaming-yellow Aerostich Darien Jacket wearing yellow Nolan motorcycle helmet, gloves and riding pants and boots, looking like some hazmat worker.

He said, “Yes, can I help you.”

“My motorcycle is down below in your driveway, out of gas. Can I buy enough out of one of your truck tanks to get to the next gas station?”

“That’d be about 10 miles,” he answered. “I’ve got some over there in the shed I’ll let you have.”

While we collected the full red plastic gas container and walked to my motorcycle, then poured some in, he asked where I was from, and where I was going. I told him I was from a small town in Montana and headed to Anchor Point to ride my motorcycle off the edge of the earth. That confused him until I explained about my tagging places designated as the ends of the earth.

I asked him about his business, being out in the middle of nowhere like he was located, what type of trucks he liked and what he thought of the newer models versus the older ones he was selling. We traded some motorhead talk about our mutual dislikes for computers managing motorcycle and truck operating systems and the high cost of electronic replacement parts.

He poured a half gallon of gas in my dry tank and said that would get me to the next gas station the other direction from the one I had chosen, back through the junction and to the Quartz Creek Road intersection. I offered him $10 for the gas which he refused. Then I tried $5, which was again refused. Finally he agreed to take $3, wishing me well on travels, and asking me to stop by with a picture when I returned to Anchorage. He said, “I’ve been down there to Anchor Point fishing, but didn’t know it was the edge of the earth.”

My next stop after filling the gas tank was to watch the fishermen where the Russian River joins the Kenai River. The fishermen were standing in the river nearly shoulder to shoulder flaying lines, trying to catch King salmon swimming upstream to spawn. I waited on the bank to photograph the havoc that would take place if someone hooked a fish and tried to land it with so many lines in the water, but no one entertained me.

Gas at the Sunrise Inn  at the Quartz Creek Road intersection on the Sterling Highway 97.9 miles from Anchorage.Fish on! The King Salmon were running up the Kenai River but likely had trouble swimming between the legs of the numerous fishermen.
(left) Gas at the Sunrise Inn, at the Quartz Creek Road intersection on the Sterling Highway 97.9 miles from Anchorage.
(right) King Salmon were running up the Kenai River but likely had trouble swimming between the legs of the numerous fishermen.

Having learned that my KLX250S had a 100 mile bladder, I stopped in the next big town, Soldotna (population approximately 4,000). At an auto parts store I purchased a small red plastic gas container that I filled. It easily fit inside one of my saddle bags and gave me another 100 mile range on the KLX250S in case I erred again.

The Sterling Highway was paved and well marked, but had earned a “double fine” designation for speeding. I was told at the auto parts store that this designation was due to the large number of accidents along one ten-mile section often involving vehicles and moose, several hundred being killed each year, that being moose and not people. Add some rain, ice, snow, and drunk drivers and it was easy to see this stretch was an even more dangerous section for motorcycles.

The town of Anchor Point had a population of less than 2,000. It was originally named “Laida” by Captain James Cook in 1778, who was looking for the mysterious Northwest Passage. Early homesteaders later renamed the area and town Anchor Point to recognize the fact that Cook had lost an anchor off shore from one of his two ships.

The sign was missing at the location of North Americas most westerly highway point. On the beach  a little further west than highway sign.
(top) The sign was missing at the location of North America’s most westerly highway point. (bottom) On the beach, a little further west than the highway sign.

There was no sign giving directions to the actual “point.” A right turn off the new Sterling Highway onto the Old Sterling Highway, then another right turn onto the Anchor Point Road took me about 1.5 miles to the beach. Here, just 50 feet off the parking lot, there used to be a sign that people could walk to (or drive a motorcycle, illegally). The wooden sign was about six feet tall and read, “ANCHOR POINT, AK. AMERICA’S MOST WESTERLY HIGHWAY POINT.” Carved on top was a carved eagle and white mountain tops. When I arrived this year the sign was gone. I could still see the holes in the ground where the sign posts had been.

To make sure I had reached the most westerly point I could on North America, I drove my motorcycle to the end of the parking lot, then down to the beach through some soft sand and onto the harder sand left by the low tide. There I parked and enjoyed the fact that I was over the edge of the earth, literally with my motorcycle past earth’s end. As seagulls floated above my motorcycle and I smelled the salt air, I wondered if I could do the same on another continent, literally drive a motorcycle over the defined edge on the continent. Maybe my next target will be the furthest point east on the South America continent, somewhere along the coast of Brazil. It will be interesting to see where the Kawasaki KLX250S will take me next. Hopefully where there are no more bears when I make a pit stop.